Wi-Fi in airplanes: Coming this summer?

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Can it be that full-fledged, wireless internet connections are going to be a working reality on airplanes soon? This summer Southwest, American, Alaska, JetBlue, and Lufthansa all plan on testing new configurations that will allow laptop-toting passengers to engage in copious IMing, surfing, YouTubing, and emailing.

It's true that Wi-Fi-like systems have been tried before. Boeing outfitted planes with one back in 2006. Unfortunately, not many passengers were willing to give airlines the $20-$30 they were charging, and the service was dropped by the end of that year.

Newer systems are lighter, take less time to install, and cost passengers less—probably somewhere around $10 per flight. And unlike the earlier systems, the new breed will support Internet use through BlackBerrys and other smartphones as well as laptops.

Airlines see the service as yet another add-on that will get their captive audience to open wallets a little wider. As Amy Cravens, an analyst, put it to the LA Times, "There is a broad effort in the airline industry to create ancillary revenue.... This is being accomplished by turning the airline cabin into a 'flying merchandise mart,' which is in effect changing passenger perception and willingness to purchase additional products in flight."

At least in this phase, cell phones won't work on these systems. However, airlines haven't yet decided whether or not to allow voice- and video-over-Internet sites through their systems—so you may have to brace yourself for lots of random Skype calls being made in the air.


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